Monday, August 27, 2018

Suspicion and the Corruption of the Liberal Mind

I had a cartoon on my office door in the 80's. An elderly man, sitting in a beach chair next to an elderly woman, looks out over the ocean with a frown.  "I've come full circle.  I think things are what they seem."

I begin to see why it has pleased me so much


I point you to yet another Quillette article, Suspicion and the Corruption of the Liberal Mind, by Stephen Harrod Buhner. I have grown fond of the site, and need to discipline myself to go over there more often. Buhner says he is a "liberal to the core," but has grown weary of the current approach of other liberals. He in turn refers us on to Rita Felski, a professor of English at UVA whose most recent book, The Limits of Critique, discusses the liberal approach to culture and art in terms of mood. (Her definition of this occurs early on in Buhner's essay.) She too is a liberal raising red flags.

I wanted to excerpt a quote from either Buhner or Felski to give you sense of their argument, but it took a while to settle on just one. This is Buhner:
Those who have absorbed the mindset now extend suspicious reading to everyone and everything anyone does: words, body language, dress, hair, music, art, even food. They actively reject the face value of communication, whether literary or social; hold nothing as innocent of power motivations, whether directly or through unconscious complicity in those power motivations.

To regard the majority of Western peoples as possessing malign motives; to base a life upon such a point of view; to approach all books, plays, art, and human interactions with this kind of suspicion is not, however, a sign of clear-eyed perception but rather, as one of my psychology professors once put it, a diseased mind. Like its more extreme cousin, paranoia, it becomes self-perpetuating: the more suspicious one is, the more vigilant one becomes; the more vigilant one is, the more evidence one finds in even the most innocent of behaviors; and the more evidence one finds, the more suspicious one becomes.
Comparing this type of suspiciousness to paranoia is what caught my eye, as the discussion now moves into my territory.  I have noted here before (quite often, it seems) that the attitude of paranoia usually occurs before it has an object. The brain has a sense that something is wrong, or has a sensation that it interprets as a noise, and quickly after, calls it a voice. This kicks off a search for an explanation. This often happens with depression or anxiety as well. Scrooge's explanation for what Marley's ghost really is may be entertaining, but it's not the way we actually think. We blame things on real and important events, not accidentals. These are not always untrue, certainly. Grief, illness, or mistreatment can cause misery. Yet if these are not present we still find similar explanations. Work has been really stressful lately. I'm worried because Jason has been arguing with his wife.

How then if this suspicious cast of mind also precedes the political and social outlook? Yes, yes, it may all be self-reinforcing as Buhner suggests.  Nothing would be more likely, as it would be rewarding to prove oneself right so often.  As evidence, I offer myself.  When I was a liberal years ago, this was very much my cast of mind.  I believed I saw what others did not, was sensitive to the hidden motives of others and meanings of seemingly innocuous cultural items. I have credited my rescue to CS Lewis, especially in The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, which affected me powerfully. Lewis often cautioned that such interpretations of others' behavior must allow that such things are possible with ourselves as well.

While conservatives were often defensive and rationalising when their own searchlights were turned back on themselves, I found that liberals - and very especially public liberals - were unable to see it at all. The phenomenon would be acknowledged in the abstract, Of course it's human nature and applies to everyone, then instantly forgotten. Or they would cop to lesser versions of  the (stereotypical) faults of conservatives, acknowledging that they also were materialistic or liked the comfort of things remaining the same, yet failed to see that there was another entire set of faults more typical of liberals.

In recently recalling a conversation I had in highschool, long before I read Lewis, I now doubt he was the cause of any change.  He reinforced it and gave me words for it, but I have always had both moods present - suspiciousness of everything, including myself, counteracted by an amused awareness that most things actually are as they seem.

Update: There is also the belief that someone out there has money they are hiding from the rest of us, the goal being to make them give it up.  Quoting Jonah Goldberg:

"It is grounded in an ancient romantic notion that economics — the science of competing choices amidst finite resources — is a con. We can do all the good things simultaneously. Everyone can become an American, and every American is entitled to free housing, free school, guaranteed work, and every other good thing. It is the ideology of the child or the aristocrat — often the same thing — that holds we can of course have our cakes and eat them too. And as with the more evil forms of ideology, its advocates assume that those opposed are motivated by a desire to deprive the deserving of something they could easily give them."


Tom Grey said...

This is an interesting perspective, and related to how smart folk can lie to themselves. I've long thought all smart folk know how to tell untruths to themselves so that they believe it -- rationalization. In practice, this means many such folk come to an emotional conclusion, first, and then use their rational mind to justify that conclusion, while telling themselves they are being fully rational "and that's just where the facts take me."

With suspicion, and especially the projection of dishonesty onto "the others", it becomes very very easy to follow the "fact that X is dishonest about that" to mean that X is bad, thus wrong in policy. If X was being dishonest, it would indeed be rational to come to the conclusion. Usually there's no way of really knowing the motivation, tho.

Immediately thought of Pink Floyd Sheep:

"I've looked over Jordan and I have seen
Things are not what they seem

What do you get for pretending the danger's not real
Meek and obedient you follow the leader
Down well trodden corridors into the valley of steel
What a surprise
A look of terminal shock in your eyes
Now things are really what they seem
No, this is no bad dream..."

(The lyrics were actually quite strong on Animals, but the music was not inspired and the mix, so that the lyrics often seemed muddy, was terrible.)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Tom - I am mulling some of the same things in my head and will likely post on them shortly. I think I have a little something new to add to the discussion.

As for the Pink Floyd song, the irony is remarkable, isn't it? The ones he thinks were the sheep had already lost control of the education culture (One More Brick In The Wall) and were beginning to stand independently in a rearguard action that would soon spread to the whole culture. The people Pink Floyd thought of as the rebels, the independent thinkers, the free ones, were already the new sheep.

Texan99 said...

There's a black-and-white-thinking thing going on here, too: either Original Sin is so pervasive that we must all act like the worst caricature of a joyless scourging Puritan, or everyone from infancy to old age is an angelic Noble Savage living in pure innocence, and all apparent evil is an avoidable corruption arising from improper education or nutrition or unreformed spelling. I mean, really, the idea that interpersonal relations always have some tinge of power play in them? How surprising is that supposed to be? Next we'll be hearing that human beings have an ineradicable urge to selfishness, that people sometimes erupt in less-than-justifiable anger when threatened, or that not everyone is always strictly just and truthful.

It's very hard to maintain a tradition that people are imperfect but still valuable and redeemable, and that our social structures have to take both extremes into account.